Sunday, February 24, 2008

Natural Slavery II

The issue of natural slavery came to mind while I was reading The End of Faith by Sam Harris. In Ch. 1, Harris proposes a thought experiment in which we imagine that we are suddenly totally ignorant:

What if all our knowledge about the world were suddenly to disappear? Imagine that six billion of us wake up tomorrow morning in a state of utter ignorance and confusion. Our books and computers are still here, but we can't make heads or tails of their contents. We have even forgotten how to driver our cars and brush our teeth. What knowledge would we want to reclaim first? Well, there's that business about growing food and building shelter that we would want to get reacquainted with. We would want to relearn how to use and repair many of our machines. Learning to understand spoken and written language would also be a top priority, given that these skills are necessary for acquiring most others. When in this process of reclaiming our humanity will it be important to know that Jesus was born of a virgin? Or that he was resurrected?

The last two questions are rhetorical, of course, because Harris takes the answers to be obvious: Never in this process will it seem important to us to know that Jesus was born of a virgin or resurrected. Harris is right - but not for the reasons he thinks, and the implications of the negative answer are not what he thinks they are. Harris takes it for granted that a negative answer means that the Gospel is unnecessary and may be safely forgotten. To the contrary, the negative answer implies that the Gospel is absolutely necessary and is only forgotten at our peril.

Harris has not thought deeply enough about the meaning of thorough-going ignorance. We learn from Socrates that ignorance, in its deepest aspect, is ignorant of itself. When we are ignorant, we not only don't know something, we also don't know that we don't know it. Harris asks the question "What knowledge would we want to reclaim first," but his question implies that we already are knowledgeable. It implies that his state of "utter ignorance" isn't really utterly ignorant, for in it we are not only aware that we are ignorant, but we are aware of precisely in what our ignorance consists. He imagines us reacquiring knowledge as though we were browsing a supermarket, picking and choosing the items we wish to know. But on what basis does the ignorant man decide what is important to know and what is not important to know?

Necessity will certainly teach him the importance of knowing certain things, like acquiring food and shelter. Man naturally knows the objects of certain desires, like hunger, thirst and the desire for shelter. He doesn't have to be taught to eat or drink. But what about those machines, like automobiles and computers, which are not the direct objects of natural desire and are utterly baffling to the ignorant man? Harris simply says that "We would want to relearn how to use and repair many of our machines", but this only follows on the assumption that we not only know what the machines are for, but that we know that the ends for which they can be used are valuable. But the ignorant man doesn't know such things. Even something as simple as a toothbrush; how will we know what it is for and that it is important to brush our teeth? We will be as ignorant of dental hygiene as anything else.

Necessity drives the quest for knowledge only so far. The necessities of life can be met without knowing most of what modern man knows, as demonstrated by civilizations throughout history. Most civilizations reach a certain level of knowledge and then stay there indefinitely, as Chinese civilization had not significantly changed for thousands of years prior to its encounter with the Western world in early modernity. The civilizations of Polynesia and Africa similarly puttered along serenely for thousands of years at the same level of knowledge and technology, and probably would have continued doing so had they not met Western man and his startling technology.

No, Harris does not have it quite right. In the utterly ignorant state he supposes, we would see no need to learn that Jesus was born of a virgin or was resurrected. But neither would we see a need to learn how to use computers, or to learn the scientific method, or to learn much more than is necessary to maintain a basic level of civilization that allows us to survive. That is the general lesson of history. Even the civilization of Socrates and Aristotle that became aware of its own ignorance (but not exactly what it was ignorant of), never really took off. Philosophers felt the hunger for knowledge, but their hunger was always viewed as eccentric and never qualified the civilization as a whole.

In only one civilization, at one moment in history, was this pattern broken and man came to know things far beyond the necessities of survival. That civilization, as it happens, is also the civilization that was founded on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not unreasonable for us to suspect that there is a connection between these two facts. Perhaps it is only because we knew that Jesus was born of a virgin and was resurrected that we later came to know things like automobiles and dental hygiene.

The Church was commanded by Jesus Christ to teach the Gospel throughout the world, that the "repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all the nations..." Now you can preach the Gospel to all nations only if you, in fact, know all nations and are able to get to them. The Christian Gospel in its origin involves a divine summons to know and explore the world. Tradition holds that many of the Apostles died in foreign lands (e.g. St. Thomas in India, I believe). It isn't long after his conversion that Paul, the first great missionary, sets out from the Palestine he had known his whole life to tramp to the ends of the Roman Empire. The Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles are basically a travelogue of Paul's journeys around the Empire.

The outward-looking and exploratory character of Western civilization owes its origin to Jesus Christ. Western man did not develop the science and technology necessary to understand the world simply as an end in itself; he developed it as a means to achieving the religious mission to which he had been set by God. You can preach to the ends of the Earth only if you have the ships and navigational technique to get there.

But there is something more than this. Jesus Christ is the Word made Flesh. He is Knowledge Itself made flesh. So to know Jesus Christ, we must know the Flesh of which He is made. It follows that knowing the world is also a way of knowing God. More than this, we can't know God unless we truly know the world. Throughout Christian history, there has always been this dual aspect to the quest for knowledge: Knowing the world is not only good for its own sake, but we know and glorify God in coming to know the world He has made. Christian man cannot rest in knowing enough to know how to survive; he has been given a divine summons to explore the world and know it so that he not only can preach the Gospel, but also that he may know God more fully.

What about the natural slavery I mentioned at the beginning of this essay? Sam Harris mentions some things to which "we could never return with a clear conscience." Among them he mentions the caste system and slavery. As I remarked in that earlier post, it is only Christian-inspired Western civilization that has actively abolished slavery. All other civilizations, illuminated only by the light of natural knowledge, never saw anything wrong with slavery per se. So in Harris's hypothesized state of utter ignorance, we would be utterly ignorant of the immorality of slavery. And given that non-Christian civilizations never arrive at the conclusion that slavery in and of itself is wrong, we can safely suppose that neither in Harris's hypothesis would we ever conclude that slavery is wrong, no matter how much science and technology we relearned. We might return to slavery but we would do it with a clear conscience, for our conscience would be ignorant.

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